An independent group of journalists on Tuesday said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s advice to owners of ABS-CBN to sell the broadcast giant was a threat to press freedom and rallied Filipinos to defend free expression in the country.

“We call on the community of independent Filipino journalists and on citizens who cherish democracy to band together and protect the free arena of ideas that the closure or forced sale of ABS-CBN would severely weaken,” said the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) in a statement.

“The alternative – the death of freedom of the press and of free expression – is too horrible to contemplate,” it said.

Bayan Muna Rep Ferdinand Gaite, a member of the Makabayan bloc, echoed the call, saying all journalists in the Philippines and abroad “and all those who stand for the truth must band together and stop this attack on press freedom”.

“If not”, he added, “tyranny and fake news would prevail”.

Duterte has publicly said he would “see to it” that the radio-TV network’s franchise would not be renewed after it expires on March 30.

“This ABS [ABS-CBN], your contract [franchise] will expire. If you renew it, I don’t know what will happen to you,” he said in a rambling speech on Monday in M’lang, Cotabato province. “If I were you, just sell it.”

Four weeks earlier, Duterte told the company owners: “Your franchise will end next year. If you are expecting that it will be renewed, I’m sorry. You’re out. I will see to it that you’re out.”

The Lopez family is the controlling owner of the publicly listed company, which was among hundreds of media companies shuttered in 1972 when dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law.

There has been no comment from the company or the Lopez family on Duterte’s statement on Monday.

But the NUJP said the latest tirade against ABS-CBN “bears all the signs of a shakedown and raises questions over his real intentions for seeking to block the renewal of the broadcast network’s franchise”.

“The fact is Duterte has already shown a propensity for coercion, as he did in 2017 when he publicly told ABS-CBN to support his federalism drive and he would agree to settle his difference with the network,” it said.

The NUJP noted that Duterte’s statement appeared to be “marching orders” to his allies in Congress, which had not acted on bills to renew ABS-CBN’s franchise.

Duterte has not hidden his displeasure with ABS-CBN since it aired a negative TV ad against him that was paid for by former Senator Antonio Trillanes IV during the presidential campaign.

The campaign ad showed children disliking videos of Duterte cursing Pope Francis and his joke about the gang rape and murder of an Australian missionary during a prison riot in Davao City in 1989.

Duterte later said the TV network had been unfair in reporting about him, including his brutal war on drugs.

He has also said ABS-CBN was liable for allegedly not providing him with the airtime he had paid for during the campaign.

Senate president Vicente Sotto III played down Duterte’s latest statement, saying press freedom in the country is “freer than [in] most parts of the world”.

“We even publish ‘fake news’ [here],” Sotto said in a Viber message to the Inquirer.

Regarding Duterte’s advice to just sell the network, he said: “The President’s ‘advice’ is simply that, advice.”

Gaite said Duterte should just sue ABS-CBN if he had any grievance against it “rather than trample on press freedom and the jobs of at least 7,000 employees”.

Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network